Why Smart Kids Can Struggle in School


The first part of the school year is almost in the record books, and already you Bright, capable student struggling in schoolsee the writing on the wall. Your bright, funny, curious child brought home a backpack crammed with crumpled worksheets, last week’s hummus snack, and teacher comments that were less than stellar. You know she can do better. Her teachers know she can do better. Your child wants to do well - but is at a loss as to how. She thinks, “I guess I’m not so smart, after all.” But succeeding at school is not all about pure intellect, or IQ. Rather, skills of self-management, or Executive Function skills, are the key to consistent academic achievement. Smart kids can struggle in school when they don’t have tools and strategies to manage their academic demands. 

Here are 5 red-flag statements we hear from students that signal a need to build Executive Function skills. The good news? These skills can be learned.

1) “I don’t need to write it down. I’ll remember.”

Oftentimes, students think they can remember all their homework without writing it in a planner or using some method of tracking work. Some days that turns out well, but more frequently students find they have completed the wrong assignment - or they forget about it altogether.  As for taking notes in class, students tend to make the mistake of thinking that they should only write down what's new or unusual information, instead of seeing note-taking as a documentation of what was covered in class. Whenever students rely on keeping a variety of information "in their head" over the course of a school day, you can be sure that something will be forgotten or that errors in their recall will trip them up.

2) “I can't stand that teacher/ that subject!” 

Students without good self-management skills can get derailed when they don’t like a teacher or a class subject. Their emotions get in the way of their investment in the class, and ultimately their grade can suffer. Successful students make 1:1 connections with all their teachers, because they know that it's in their best interests to build strong relationships with instructors.

3) “But I know I did that assignment…” 

When a student doesn’t have a system for managing materials, completed homework can get lost before it ever gets turned in. Imagine how frustrating it feels to a student who spent time doing a math worksheet, only to lose track of it and not get the credit. Even if a student does reasonably well on tests, their overall grade can take a dive when homework completion is spotty, 

4) “This work takes forever. It’s so boring.” 

Longer, more complex assignments draw on a student’s ability to maintain their effort over time, or persist, in the midst of the temptation of other (more fun) activities. Without strategies to follow through and tolerate the “boring stuff", students tend to give up and seek more satisfying diversions (hello, YouTube). 

5) “I’ve got plenty of time to do homework. It’s only 8:45.”  

Time management looms large as a critical skill for success in school. When students have poor ability to estimate how long tasks will take - and plan their evenings accordingly - they inevitably experience increased stress as they discover that English essay or science lab is taking way longer than they expected. As a result, the rushed work they produce is often not a true reflection of what they know.

How many of these 5 statements sound familiar to you? If you count one or more, your child may have some challenges with self-management, or Executive Function skills. As with any skill, they can be learned through expert instruction and practice. Ask your pediatrician or your child’s teacher about your options. Your child may be recommended for neuropsychological testing to determine the nature of their difficulties.

Project planner templateDoes your child need help managing a project? Download our free project planner that helps students break down and make a detailed plan for completing a long-term assignment (without last-minute panic).

Download Project Planner Guide >


About the Author

Jackie Hebert

Jackie Hebert is the Director of Marketing for Beyond BookSmart. Whether it's managing our websites, overseeing our social media content, authoring and editing blog articles, or hosting webinars, Jackie oversees all Marketing activities at Beyond BookSmart. Before joining Beyond BookSmart in 2010, Jackie was a Speech-Language Pathologist at Needham High School. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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